The Houthis and a history of conflict in Yemen

Friday last week marked the 52nd anniversary of the 1962 revolution that sparked the North Yemen civil war between the supporters of the Mutawakkilite Imamate and the republicans who deposed the Zaydi Imam Muhammad al-Badr. Backing the royalists were Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Britain, while Gamal Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and the Soviet Union sided with the republicans.

But this year’s anniversary will not be recollected for the traditional celebrations. Over the last few weeks in the capital Sanaa, Houthi rebels led by Abdul Malik al-Houthi, seized vital government buildings, the international airport, looted the homes of top government officials and expelled government-sanctioned preachers from local mosques to replace them with their own preachers.

Taking advantage of the weakness of the Yemeni state and the constant political bickering, the Houthis have expanded their territorial reach considerably

Manuel Almeida

The U.N.-brokered a deal signed two weeks ago between the Yemeni government and the Houthis (also known as Ansar Allah, or Partisans of God) to end the fighting that killed hundreds and form a new national unity government. However, the deal did not stop the Houthis from taking over the capital. Prime Minister Mohammad Salem Basindwa resigned and, according to recent reports, the Houthis have already backed one candidate for prime minister and also apparently expect to receive a number of ministerial portfolios. Bowing to pressure, President Abd Rabbuh Mansour Hadi has appointed Saleh al-Samad from the Houthis as new presidential adviser. Also to appease the rebels, the government agreed to cut fuel prices by 25 percent, thus retreating from the decision to raise prices on which the Houthis capitalized to organize protests and sit-ins in Sanaa.

What will the deal bring?

Does the deal to form a new unity government hold any promise of bringing much-needed tranquility and security, at least to the north of Yemen? My answer would be probably not. It is telling that the Houthis have not yet abided by the security clauses of the agreement concerning disarmament and the withdrawal of their fighters from Sanaa and Imran province.

The underlying grievance of the revivalist Zaydi group is the Houthis’ belief that their Zaydi identify has been under threat by the expansion of Salafism in Yemen. Recent history has rendered the Houthis more radical. The late Houthi leader Houssein al-Houthi spent some time in Iran (Qom) in the mid-1990s and came back to Yemen to lead a more aggressive bout of activism.

Much of the blame, in my view, goes to former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, ironically himself originally a Zaydi. Under Saleh’s government the Houthis’ economic and political marginalization increased dramatically. Since 2004, Saleh fought six wars against the Houthis with disastrous humanitarian consequences in the north of Yemen, particularly in the Houthis’ Sadah stronghold. This increased support for the Houthis even among Yemeni Sunnis. Saleh also partnered with Salafists and former jihadists when it suited him, allowing the seeds of extremism to grow, and never really tackled the expansion of al-Qaeda in Yemen while cashing in on international (mostly U.S.) support for counter-terrorism.

The Arab uprisings

Fast forward to the Arab uprisings, Saleh’s overthrow in June 2011 and Yemen’s National Dialogue. The Houthis rejected the outcome of the GCC initiative that established a governing coalition formed by figures of the General People’s Congress (GPC, Saleh’s party) and the opposition Joint Meeting Parties (JMP). This rejection of the status quo solution positioned the Houthis as the champions of many of those anti-establishment Yemenis disillusioned with the political process and the lack of progress on the security and economic fronts.

Taking advantage of the weakness of the Yemeni state and the constant political bickering, the Houthis have expanded their territorial reach considerably. In some areas—Hajjah, al-Jawf and Saada—they are described as a state within a state, taking care of security, local administration and tax collection.

Enemies

Over the years, the Houthis have accumulated enemies in Yemen. First among these are the Ahmar family (the sheikhs of the Hashid, Yemen’s most powerful tribal confederation), the Islamist Islah party and its Salafist wing, the military coalition of Major General Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar (a key figure of Saleh’s regime, not part of the Ahmar family), and Yemen-based al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

Since October last year, this animosity marked by occasional skirmishes gave way to an open armed conflict between the Houthis and Salafists in Dammaj. This fighting spread throughout various regions in the north and dragged in tribes, the Ahmar family, Islah, Mohsen’s supporters, as well as government troops. The current Houthi control of the capital is the clearest signal of who won this round.

Although the Houthis, Islah and the GPC are part to the agreement to form a new government, the weakness of the Yemeni state and Hadi’s lack of a substantial support base means that there is little coercive power to enforce its implementation. Under these circumstances, Hadi will also struggle to deliver the second phase of Yemen’s political transition, already behind the original schedule to deliver a new constitution and elections by February 2014.

The U.N. Security Council has been threatening to impose sanctions on the so-called spoilers, both individuals and groups. However, more needs to be done to ensure that the political transition in Yemen does not derail completely. The influence of Saudi Arabia and Iran in Yemen is often highly exaggerated in the media, but the two regional rivals should use all the leverage they have to encourage dialogue to solve the current crisis. The signs in this regard are relatively positive. Saudi Arabia continues to follow developments in its southern neighbor very closely and there are reports that Iran pressured the Houthis to accept the deal with the Yemeni government.

The current conflict has worrying contours of the wider sectarian struggles currently destroying the Middle East’s heterogeneous social fabric, yet it is extremely simplistic or even wrong to characterize this conflict as one of radical Shiism versus radical Sunnism. It is far more complicated than that. Nevertheless, if not tamed, the deep animosity between the Houthis and Yemen’s Sunni Islamists, the Salafists, and al-Qaeda may well spiral out of control. A disintegrated Yemen is in no one’s interest.
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Manuel Almeida is a writer, researcher and consultant focusing on the Middle East and emerging markets. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the London of Economics and Political Science, and is the former editor of the English edition of Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper.
 

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